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Phillip Hughes and safety in cricket


Phillip Hughes was playing for South Australia in a Sheffield Shield match when he was struck in the back of the neck by a bouncer from New South Wales paceman Sean Abbott.

After spending two days in intensive care at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, while friends (including fellow cricketers) and family members kept a bedside vigil hoping and praying for a full recovery (as were many around the world in the close knit cricket fraternity), Phillip Hughes passed away quietly aged just 25.

The passing of a talented young man seemingly with the world at his feet (he had  recently been tipped to replace the injured Michael Clarke for Australia’s upcoming test series against India) is indisputably a horrible tragedy.

Phillip Hughes’ injury was also a freakish accident. Cricinfo reports Cricket Australia doctor Peter Brukner discussing the very rare nature of the injury which the young batsman suffered:

“This was a freakish accident, because it was an injury to the neck that caused haemorrhage in the brain,” he said. “This condition is incredibly rare. It’s called vertebral artery dissection, leading to subarachnoid haemorrhage – that’s the medical term for it. “If you look in the literature there’s only about 100 cases ever reported, so this is incredibly rare. Only one previous case ever reported as the result of a cricket ball. So I think it’s important to realise that yes, we need to review all our procedures and equipment, but this is an incredibly rare type of injury.”

The response to this horrible tragedy has largely been an outpouring of genuine sympathy for a young man whose life was sadly cut short and recognition that the injury was truly a freakish accident. However perhaps it is to be expected that there has been a clamor for improved safety standards for the game of cricket. Former Black Cap Peter McGlashan has suggested safety standards will change as a result of Hughes’ death.

Such a feeling is natural and understandable but outrage and upset about this accident should not obscure the fact that as mentioned in the quote from Dr Bruckner this was an extremely rare condition and an extremely rare outcome from the game of cricket. At these times people often talk about prioritising safety but there is no sporting activity which can be 100% safe and indeed many everyday activities entail risk.

As horrible as Phillip Hughes’ accident is, it is also one incident, it would be ill considered were the governing bodies of cricketing nations round the world to drastically change their regulatory standards as a result of a single accident, just as changing policy whenever the sample size of very negative outcomes is so low.

Cricketers themselves are also fully aware when the play the game of the risk which they assume in stepping out to the middle and (at the professional level) facing up to pace bowlers firing down deliveries in excess of 140 kilometres per hour. Of course cricketers take the precautions they can and there are certain standards to be met but all cricketers know there remains a certain element of risk which is unable to be removed from the game and accept this risk.

People should look to the tragedy of Phillip Hughes not as an excuse to impose greater restrictions on cricketers but as a freakish accident and a reminder to us all of the fleetingness of life.


The economist on the moral hazard of cricketers wearing helmets

Cricinfo’s obituary of Phillip Hughes

Former New Zealand cricketer Iain O’ Brien on bowling and receiving the bouncer


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  1. Brad permalink

    The moral hazard angle is interesting. Gordon Tullock used to suggest putting a big spike in the middle of each steering wheel to encourage safe driving.

    If banning helmets did make things safer on aggregate, it would do so while enhancing the perception of cricket as a dangerous and tense game – dangerous but not deadly. I’m sure as soon as someone did sustain an injury which could have been avoided by a helmet there would be calls to bring helmets back in, however. The people who would have been saved by a no-helmet rule can’t be identified because they never get hit.

  2. Interesting comment Brad although the spike seems a bit draconian.
    You are right about the visibility bias of those who get hit versus those who don’t.
    There is also an issue nowadays with kids wearing helmets at a young age and not learning how to properly
    get out of the way of the ball. This article raises that concern and that young players too often look to play the riskier hook or pull shots to a short ball. I am basically OK with helmets (certainly at top level) but it is important to learn to avoid the ball and learn to bat while wearing them because they do obscure players’ vision.

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